Sally Potter’s film about the decline and fall of an intense lifelong friendship is funny, engaging, wrenching and, ultimately cathartic. In other words, it’s very good.
It’s set in 1962 England, a time and place still suffering under post-World War II austerity. Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) are the best-friend daughters of one-time best-friend mothers Natalie (Christina Hendricks) and Anoushka (Jodhi May). They cut school, hitchhike to the seashore, sneak smokes, make out with boys, drink, and generally drift about looking for the kind of “good” trouble that teenagers have always sought out. Rosa’s dad is long gone, but Ginger’s father (Alessandro Nivola) is around—sometimes. He’s a pacifist free-thinker, well-read academic and self-absorbed charmer who insists his daughter call him by his first name, Roland.
The detail is good. The girls range around blighted territory: forlorn seascapes, industrial wastes, dark cafes and bars. This is a dreary world where people—especially bohemians like her parents—are always having to make do. The music is mostly moody jazz, which makes sense given the legacy of the girls’ parents’ musical tastes, with some Teddy Boy-attracting rockabilly thrown in for good measure.
Ginger’s going to be an intellectual and a poet; her ideas are clear and her poems (the ones we get to hear) are pretty good. Alice is less well-formed, and her future is clouded. Worse, she has abandonment issues that play into the girls’ growing conflict and lead to their eventual falling out.
Note the time of the story: 1962. Specifically, most of the action takes place during the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Gloomy radio announcers offer grim estimates of likely death totals.) Ginger’s parents and parents’ friends are activists, and Ginger plunges into all manner of “ban the bomb” protests, eventually putting herself on the line in more dangerous direct actions. Partly, this is out of conviction and genuine terror at nuclear annihilation. Partly, this is a problem for Rosa to fixate on instead of the terrible disaster that’s happening at the heart of her own disintegrating family.
We’re all so used to seeing Brit actors come over here and play Americans that it’s refreshing to see a couple of Yanks—Fanning and Hendricks—be so effective playing Brits. Englert is even better than she was in Beautiful Creatures. The fine supporting cast includes a wonderful Timothy Spall as her attentive, perceptive “Uncle” Mark, and Annette Bening as a sharp-tongued American activist.
Potter takes the nuclear war/nuclear family meltdown parallel a lot further than you’d expect, but not too far. Unlike a nuclear war, which would have ended all life on Earth, Potter makes it clear that the durable Rosa will survive the H-bomb that hits her family.